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The Competent Parent: Fighting family time

Headshot2011Welcome to our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Fighting Family Time

Dear Dr. Debbie,

As an only child, with no first cousins, I may be a little clueless about how things are supposed to go around holiday time. I have four very grumbly children, ranging from 10 to 17 years old, who are protesting every family gathering we have scheduled for this holiday week. One grandmother is staying with us from out of town, and the other grandparents are local. There are several get-togethers planned that will encompass these relatives and various lifetime friends of the grandparents and my husband and me and offspring of all ages. I feel like this should be a welcome opportunity for the children to share their interests and achievements among people who truly care about them. Other than my children’s sour attitudes, I look forward to reconnecting with people who, to me, feel like family.

Their Pushy Mother

Click here to read last week’s column about CHILDREN RUNNING AMOK

Dear Pushy Mother,

What you are pushing is a worthy value. “Family” can be defined by genetics, adoption and marriage, but it can also include nonrelated people whose roles in each other’s lives serve the same purpose. Longstanding relationships give children a sense of continuity and belonging and as you say, a sense of mattering. Members of a family – as well as some very special lifelong friends – take care of one another’s needs without having to keep score. It just makes you feel good to do it. Triumphs are magnified and troubles are lessened when you have family.

These relationships are begun with individuals who live in close proximity – maybe next door, or even in the same house – and are able to meet important needs for each other on a reliable basis. Jointly enduring the challenges of growing up, or graduate school, or an insufferable boss, or parenthood, can forge such a tight bond that years and distance cannot break. Your every-so-often get-togethers are a time to check in with each other about what is important to you. For the adults, this happens mostly through conversation – sharing ups and downs since you last saw each other, checking facts and opinions on current events, advising each other on how to make the best use of the latest technology, and marveling at how much the children have grown. You also share long ago stories with each other that are savored for their ability to bring you back in time together and remind you how much you value these relationships.

For children, relationships are about action. Here and now. They bore so easily! They want to go to parties that will satisfy their needs for attention and activity. The best holiday gatherings are designed to meet the needs of adults and children.

If you are hosting, have your children plan the children’s activities and menu. Bridge some communication with the invited children (whom they presumably do not know as well as you know the parents) to confirm good choices for games, videos, and food. If you can, extend the guest list with one friend each for your own children, and if you’re feeling extra magnanimous, extend this to your guest families as well. After all, no one likes to go to a party feeling friendless. If you’re up to it, the young people might enjoy their own cooking activity – stuffing and rolling sushi, manning a shish-kebab grill, or tending the chestnuts in the fireplace. At least one adult needs to oversee the younger guests’ enjoyment at all times. This duty could be shared among several adults – making use of one’s musical talents to lead the sing-along jam, another’s craft skills to lead them in cutting paper snowflakes or dipping candles, another’s outgoing personality to emcee a homemade Quiz Show, and another’s sports-mindedness to lead the all-over-the-house scavenger hunt. A capable teen-ager can be designated to lead activities for younger children, satisfying an important need to feel competent (while having fun!).

If you are not hosting, offer to lead a children’s activity and or to bring your children’s preferred foods. The best arrangement would be for children from several families to organize their part of the party ahead of time, so they all can look forward to the event.

If you are successful with adding the element of children’s needs to your annual gatherings, your new traditions might carry on for years to come!

Happy holidays,

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com.

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